Woke up a co-owner of ESO’s facilities

The news is not that fresh, but I just want to register the information if someone missed the buzz of the last days or if this text was retrieved from an old and well-preserved server on the distant future when humanity has deceased. In case you didn’t know, Brazil is in its way towards being the first non-European country to be a member of ESO, the European Southern Observatory. The whole process started back in 2010, when the Ministry of Science & Technology proposed an agreement to ESO. At that moment, Brazil was enjoying fruitful times, with a steadily growing economy and a general improvement on the people’s lives, especially the poor. Things were good, so the 270 million euro investment on membership didn’t seem like too long of a stretch.

However, investments in science and technology are also slow to get on going in this country. It is now 2015, dollar and euro went skyward, our economy is stagnated, and there is a climate of political uneasiness. Things are rough now. Even so, the slow pace has led us to what seems to be a happy ending. In March 19th, the Congress finally approved the investment (which they generally called a cost) on ESO and the membership. The political strife between the federal government and the [mostly] opposing congress may have been a blessing: it is said that they only approved the membership because president Dilma Rousseff was showing signs of backing off of the agreement.

After going around back and forth through a series of bureaucratic assessments, the process went to the Senate, and on May 14th, they also approved the investment on ESO. As someone has put out on Twitter: Brazilians woke up next morning being the co-owners of the most advanced ground-based telescopes on Earth. Today, May 19th, the Senate has promulgated the approval through the Diário da União.

The Senate didn’t put much of a fight to bar the entrance to ESO. In fact, they seem to be in accord about the benefits to our country on becoming a member. Here’s what is said in the official statement by the Senate (my own translation):

“Given what was shown, we are certain that [the membership] is an investment that will give our country an immediate return. Furthermore, there are already many research projects whose success was only attained because of the efforts of our astronomers and the observation time that was conceded to them, in addition to the perspectives of participation by our companies and institutions on the E-ELT construction. On the other hand, we have to keep in mind that this is, above all, a long-term investment in science, technology and education by our country.”

That wisely said, we are now [arguably] one step away from finally becoming a member of ESO: we need the president Dilma Rousseff to approve the project of law. This is it, people, we are almost there! Even though there is this rough political climate in Brasília, it is highly unlikely that the president will overrule the decisions of the Congress and the Senate. Will she survive long enough as a president until then? Well, that’s another story, but I would bet that she will.

Anyway, this is where things are now. I am very happy, not only because we will continue to be able to use ESO’s facilities for our research, but also because this is a huge and inspiring step for us. Astronomy was judged by many politicians to be frivolous and unimportant given the core issues that our country has. But even so, with the efforts of many people, we are almost there. We have long ways to go when it comes to science, technology and education, but it is also true that we have never seen such good times in Brazil. Baby steps.


Featured image: an excerpt of the Brazilian Senate’s report on the decision taken on May 14, 2015

 

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Woke up a co-owner of ESO’s facilities

Brazilian Plenary approves ESO membership

It has finally happened, folks! We are almost there: the ESO membership. Okay, so, if you’re still unaware about this, Brazil is set to be the first non-European country to be part of ESO, the European Southern Observatory, one of the biggest and most prestigious astronomical facilities in the world. You can read more details about this here and here. The bottom-line was that the whole process of membership approval (by Brazilian politicians) was stuck, more specifically in the Plenary, an examining board composed of members of the parliament that analyzes and proposes modifications to the projects of law.

Today, 19 of March, 2015, after more than two years dragging along the project in the Plenary, they have finally reached to a consensus, a positive one, even after being compulsively criticized by many members of the parliament. Here is my translation of the declarations stated by the Chamber of Deputies:

“The 270 mi euros are going to be 1 bi reals.” – Nilson Leitão

As I wrote in a previous post, this amount of money is still less than many investments done by the country to private businesses. There is no reason to privilege business over science endeavors, especially for developing countries (as we see in India and China).

“It’s bad for the government, taking money away from people who deserve it and need it. It’s bad for the country” – Pompeo de Mattos

Again, pure demagogy, the same tactic used by Fábio Garcia. This is not money being taken away from people, it is an investment on science, science that will benefit people. Astronomy might not feed the hungry (PhD astronomers struggling to find a position will beg to differ), but it feeds the curious, it inspires the young, it attracts people to STEM – something that Brazil severely lacks. I could go on and on about this issue.

Just as a reminder, the project was target of criticism by both the opposition and the allied base of the federal government, and there is a running joke on the internet that says the Plenary approved the project just because the president Dilma Rousseff didn’t want it to happen – or rather, just to annoy her. Although I find it hard to believe that Rousseff would do take such a position, I don’t doubt that our conservative parliament would take a stance just because it’s against the president’s will. Oh, politics.

But it’s not time for celebration yet. There are still steps to be taken. Now, the project will have to be appreciated by the Senate. It’s hard to estimate the time that they will take to analyze the project, but we can always be hopeful. It probably won’t take another two years, will it? When that happens, then the Congress will finally be able to promulgate the project and Brazil will be the fifteenth member of ESO. Until then, we wait, and we press, and we lobby in favor of science and astronomy.


Featured image: artistic concept of the asteroid Chariklo, for which the discovery of a ring system had participation of a Brazilian team, using telescopes from ESO. Credit: ESO/L. Calçada/M. Kornmesser/Nick Risinger (skysurvey.org)

 

Brazilian Plenary approves ESO membership

A fierce political blow to Brazilian astronomy

In 2009, Brazil showed an interest to become the first non-European member of ESO, the European Southern Observatory, one the the most successful international efforts in astronomy. In the end of his mandate as minister of science and technology, Sérgio Rezende was one on the front of the membership agreement proposed to ESO. Since then, the consortium has been allowing Brazilian astronomers to use its facilities in Chile before the agreement is completed. Great scientific feats of astronomy were made with the participation of Brazilian astronomers, such as the discovery of the oldest solar twin and even the detection of a ring system around asteroid Chariklo. Both studies were featured in international scientific publications.

Even though ESO has already given carte blanche for the membership of Brazil, the process is still stuck in political bureaucracy. Currently, it’s been more than 4 years since the initiative, and it is still being held under procedure by the plenary, in state of urgency. ESO has been waiting patiently for the political decision because it is going to cost Brazil 130 million euros (according to this FAQ), or 800 million reals (according to the plenary, or US$ 283 million), and this money is going to be used for the construction of E-ELT, the biggest telescope ever built (its primary mirror will have a diameter of 39 m).

However, all this effort for the development of astronomy and science is under severe threat: on February 5th, the member of the parliament Fábio Garcia (which ironically is affiliated to PSB, the same political party the Sérgio Rezende is part of) blocked the appreciation of the project in the plenary, saying the following:

At this moment of crisis that our country faces, we can’t pay 800 million reals in commitment with astronomical studies. Meanwhile, the Brazilian people suffer with lack of quality in health, education and public safety […] I asked for the removal of the project from the agenda in order to buy time and enlighten you [the plenary] about this agreement. I intend to convince you that we have other, more urgent, issues to be solved.

Now, let’s analyze these affirmations by Fábio Garcia, point by point.

1. “At this moment of crisis that our country faces, we can’t pay 800 million reals in commitment with astronomical studies”

Really? Let’s see: Brazil has 513 members of the parliament, and the annual cost of each one is, according to Transparência Brasil, R$ 6.6 million (US$ 2.3 million). Supposing that the ESO’s fee of 800 million reals would be paid in equal parts (which it won’t) over 10 years (which it will), each part would cost Brazil the equivalent to 12 members of the parliament per year. On the other hand, in 2014, the federal government spent more than 820 million reals in investments on equipment and materials for the CNH Industrial Latin America. Just in one year! Actually, still in 2014, the federal government invested 95 billion reals on individuals and companies. One 10th part of ESO’s payment would cost 0.08% of the total investments done in 2014.

2. “Meanwhile, the Brazilian people suffer with lack of quality in health, education and public safety”

This is pure demagogy. Yes, in fact a lot of Brazilians suffer with poor health, education and public safety, but this argument is used only as a distraction. In 2014, the federal government injected 93.9 billion reals to public health, 91.7 billion reals to education (in contrast, only 9 billion to science and technology), and 8.5 billion reals to public safety. If each 10th part of ESO’s fee was equally divided to each of the three sectors, it would result in a raise of 0.028%, 0.029% and 0.314%, respectively to the budgets of health, education and public safety.

The problem is not the invested quantities, it is the way they are spent. And it is exactly at this point that we scientists keep on hammering: the money spent on science is not an expenditure, it is an investment. The return of this investment is sufficiently important to make other BRICS countries elbow each other on the queue for ESO membership, if Brazil defaults. Sadly, one of the things that Fábio Garcia fails to see that science does not only need scientists, and that astronomy is not only made for and by astronomers. As an example, the National Astrophysics Laboratory (LNA) is composed of 27 technicians and technologists in engineering and science, 5 in precision machining, 13 in observatory coordination, 6 in maintenance services, 58 employees on management and logistic support, and only 22 astronomers. As we can see, astronomy (as any other science) employs a diversified and very specialized workforce (positions that Brazil lacks profoundly).

Brazil would be the first non-European country to be a member of ESO. Credit: Ssolbergj on Wikimedia Commons.

I also do not understand why Fábio Garcia separated astronomy from education. To me, both are so intimately bonded that it is impossible to keep them apart. This is something that I keep repeating on my texts: education is not only to sit in a stupid chair for hours inside four walls. Education is much more than that: it is engaging with learning. And astronomy is one the most successful sciences in doing that. If, on one side, physics and mathematics can be discouraging (more for a cultural reason, in my opinion), astronomy manages to inspire and rouse people’s curiosity.

Astronomy unites people. Maybe one the most remarkable natures of this science is the international cooperation (the whole point about ESO, by the way), and I have wonderful experiences with that. During my exchange period through the Science without Borders program, I had the pleasure of studying and living with people from all over the world, all of them aiming towards the same path: exploring the universe. If that is not education, I don’t know what it is.

3. “I asked for the removal of the project from the agenda in order to buy time and enlighten you about this agreement”

I shudder to think that Fábio Garcia wants to “enlighten” the other parliament members about this, given that he doesn’t seem to have even read about the Brazil/ESO agreement. Much of the international scientific and astronomical communities wait for the ratification of the agreement. We can’t spent any more days, we are losing time!

Brazil has already benefited from the ESO facilities, who is letting us do so even before the agreement is finished. Additionally, our country has already agreed to pay part of the E-ELT construction, and the consortium (along with the entire astronomical community) waits anxiously to start this enterprise. If Brazil give up now, that would mean to default one of the most prestigious scientific agencies of the world, and another stigma for Brazil’s young science (along with defaulting ISS and CERN).

4. “I intend to convince you that we have other, more urgent, issues to be solved”

Contrary to Fábio Garcia, I think that the development of science, technology and education should be indeed priorities of Brazil (as I said, I can’t keep education apart from all this). Public safety and health may have urgent issues to be solved, but the investment in astronomy is not an antagonist. In fact, these aspects go hand in hand in developed and developing nations. For instance, some of the techniques used today in medicine (such as the imaging of internal parts of the body) are a reality because of astronomy. Technology that is common place today, such as digital cameras attached to cellphones and safety cameras, are also products of investments in astronomy.

I understand Fábio Garcia’s want to make Brazil a better country, and I think he acts with good intentions. However, his lack of information about the subjects (international relations, science, technology and their implications) and his short-sight can be harmful to the efforts made by Brazilian science. Developed and other developed countries give extreme priority to education, science and technology, and if Brazil wants to reach that place someday, we need to take these issued more seriously that we do today. Otherwise, we will always be the “country of the future”.

On February 13, Fábio Garcia stated on his Facebook page that he had a talk with the astronomers Marcos Diaz (University of São Paulo) and Gustavo Rojas (Universidade Federal de São Carlos), in which they could show him the aspects of the Brazil/ESO agreement. Garcia said that the federal government needs to fulfill the agreement and also the obligations with states and municipalities. He proposed to have reunions with the Ministries of Finance and Science & Technology to deal with these issues.

This is good news, and as I said, Garcia seems to be well-intentioned. And it is good to know that he is open to discussion. However, the decision must be taken as soon as possible, given that the ratification has been delayed countless times, dragged around for more than 2 years. All this gives the Brazilian scientists an optimism injection, but it is important to not let our guards down. Astronomy is still seen, sometimes, as a superfluous and frivolous science, but it’s been one of the most important tools of humanity since the birth of agriculture. We have to fight to warrant Brazilian science a place on the global scene.


Featured image: artistic depiction of the ring system around asteroid Chariklo, a discovery that had participation of Brazilian astronomers. Credit: ESO, L. Calçada, Nick Risinger

 

A fierce political blow to Brazilian astronomy

Brazil and ESO: where things stand right now

Featured images: Artist’s impression of the E-ELT. Credit: ESO/L. Calçada

In 2009, Brazil showed interest in being a state member of the ESO (European Southern Observatory), one of the current leading astronomy consortia that you probably already know of (if you don’t, go here). If Brazil managed to get the membership, it would mean a huge boost to our astronomy and a lot of opportunities for our companies to participate in manufacturing the instruments. ESO’s website has an extensive dedicated FAQ about this affair. Brazil does already have access to the facilities in Chile to do science, but we will only be able to participate as a state member if we paid 130 million euros. This money is of essential importance for the construction of the E-ELT, the 40-meter diameter European Extremely Large Telescope, for which things have already started with a bang in the Andes of Chile. This telescope will be our most powerful eyes for the observation of extrasolar planets, the first objects of the universe, supermassive black holes and the search for dark matter and dark energy.

Now, how important is Brazil’s money for this endeavor? As I said before and reiterate here, it is essential. The funding or E-ELT was divided in 3 parts: one from ESO’s budget, one from the other state members and one especially from Brazil. These guys are counting on us. This is because doing astronomy today is very expensive, especially if you want to look at the unexplored frontiers of the universe, so we need consortia, and we need the collaboration of many countries to make things happen. And this actually make me very proud of being an astronomer, because it’s a science that brings nations together.

However, you probably are already aware that the process of Brazil becoming a state member of ESO has been dragged along for quite a while, to say the least. And the problem is in our side: the government is still analyzing the membership, even though the former Minister of Science and Technology, Sergio Machado Rezende, asked for it in 2009. Something similar is also happening in our country’s decision about becoming a member of CERN. Unfortunately, that ESO’s FAQ I linked before does not contain an updated information on what grounds the decision are at the moment. It does say that Brazil was supposed to ratify the membership by 2013. But, so far, we don’t have an answer, and this is kinda embarrassing.

So, this is where things stand right now: the membership to ESO is under the appreciation of the Câmara dos Deputados (Chamber of Deputies), our equivalent of a Parliament. More specifically, it has to be approved by 3 commissions, 2 of which have already approved it, and so far it is waiting for the feedback of the rapporteur on the Commission of Finances and Taxation. The project is filed under the code PDC 1287/2013, and the most updated information can be seen here, but it’s in Portuguese, and I’m pretty sure there is no translation for this website. The process is already in regime of urgency, so at least they have made it clear that it is “due for yesterday” (a common expression around here). The good news is that the project has been approved by all (too many) of our bureaus, but, and here comes the bad news, since May 2014, it has been stuck at the Chamber of Deputies So far, it was presented 2 times in their sessions, one in May 29th and another in June 5th, and both times the project was not appreciated. They don’t state a reason for it, but I assume it was because they ran out of time in the session before doing the appreciation.

So, when can we expected a final decision about all this? Well, I’m afraid there is no way for me to give more information on that. An explanation on all the delay is that in July and August, there was that thing called World Cup, and then the deputados probably went for winter vacation. This October, there were elections here in Brazil, so politicians have been a bit busy on self-promotion. It’s not a justification though. I sure do hope that these guys make things work until the end of the year, so we Brazilian astronomers don’t need to feel ashamed anymore of this postponing.

The astronomical community is making its part on the job too. There has been a lot of buzz in trying to push things forward. A group of young astronomers already sent an open letter to the deputies stating how important the membership to ESO is to science and innovation in our country. Some astronomy and industry leaders have also made it clear (if your Portuguese is good or you don’t mind using Google Translate: more on that here and here, for example) that this project has been delayed too many times, and if Brazil is kicked out of ESO (as it happened with ISS), it would be a huge loss to the country’s science and technology. On the other hand, professor Dr. João Evangelista Steiner, of University of São Paulo, points out that there are other means for Brazil to advance in astronomy, for instance, by participating in the Giant Magellan Telescope (apparently, a deal between the state of São Paulo and GMT has already been done, more here too), on which the allocated telescope time would be proportional to the investment instead of competing on unequal grounds with countries that already have an upper-hand with cutting edge astronomy (which will be the case with E-ELT). However, professor Dr. Marcos Diaz, also from University of São Paulo, says that the competition is healthy for scientists to make better and better astronomy.

One of the biggest cons of the membership is that it would be a significant hit on the country’s public money reserve. 130 million euros is equivalent to ~164 million dollars, or ~398 million reais, in today’s exchange rates. That’s a lot of money, and one of the reasons why the project is being analyzed so carefully and delayed so many times. According to the Brazilian Astronomical Society, on that regard, the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation has decided on June 4th of 2014 to propose to ESO an attenuation on the price of the membership, but so far there is no more information on that. Brazil’s last budget for scientific research in 2014 was ~10 billion dollars (more on that here, in Portuguese), among public and private money. But regardless of the price tag and the said inequality on the competition for telescope time, Brazil has made a commitment, and backing away from the E-ELT could mean to the rest of the world that our country is not ready to dive into such scientific endeavors.

I have signed up to receive an e-mail anytime the project gets updated (for instance, if the commission approves, disapproves or delays it), so I will write here on the blog every time something new comes up. Fingers crossed.

Brazil and ESO: where things stand right now